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Moore: Félix Hernández is at a crossroads, and his spring debut wasn’t encouraging

Félix Hernández had an up-and-down 2019 spring training debut on Saturday. (AP)

For the most part over the last 14 years, we haven’t given much thought to Félix Hernández’s first start at Mariners spring training. If he was good, well, it’s Félix, that’s what you’ve come to expect. If he was bad, it’s because he was working on something with his pitches, nothing to be concerned about – Félix would be primed and ready to take the ball on Opening Day.

Drayer: Félix has up and down Mariners spring debut

But on Saturday, there was a heightened focus on Félix because he’s been on a downward trajectory for the past four years, and we’re all wondering if he’s done or somehow salvageable or maybe even a candidate to reinvent himself as a different kind of King.

I’ve never really cared how pitchers show up for spring training. If they’re in the best shape ever, great. If not, no problem, there have been many overweight pitchers who have been successful over the years – Bartolo Colon is one shining example of portly prowess.

Félix arrived this year looking pretty much like he always does – not skinny, not fat, but not necessarily sculpted either, which might be a good thing. Two years ago he worked out in the offseason with some guy named Iron Glenn and had his first ERA over 4 since he was 20. And last year was even worse (5.55 ERA).

You know the particulars – Félix is in the last year of his contract, guaranteed to make $27 million this season whether he’s productive or not. Mariners manager Scott Servais has already told us that he has a spot in the rotation, and I’m not entirely sure why that needed to be said in February, but it was, so here we are micro-analyzing what should be a meaningless start in Peoria.

I’ve mentioned what I think they should do with Félix – make him the closer. I think he’d have a better chance at getting three batters out than 18 or 21. Maybe he could turn himself into the next John Smoltz, a starter who became a premier reliever in the second half of his Hall of Fame career. Besides, if Félix stinks in the ninth inning, so what? Blowing saves won’t matter in a step-back season, preparing for a pennant-contending decade in the ’20s.

But general manager Jerry Dipoto says Félix’s stuff plays better over the course of several innings instead of one, and I’m just not buying that explanation after seeing several ineffective innings from Félix time and time again. Here’s the thing – let me compare it to golf. We’ve seen Félix birdie an inning, we’ve even seen him eagle an inning. And we’ve certainly seen him par an inning, and it’s OK when he occasionally bogeys an inning too. Problem is, Félix always seems to have that one inning where he records a quadruple bogey or worse.

He’s not a rising rookie, he’s a declining veteran, and I’m tired of making excuses for him by saying: “Ya know, Félix really looked good for three of his four innings, but that fourth inning, yikes.” Glimpses of what he still could be don’t cut it anymore.

In his start on Saturday, you could rationalize what happened ’til the cows come home. If a fair ball had been called foul when Félix picked it up. If a ball hit back up the middle didn’t glance off of his glove, the Mariners probably would have turned a double play. And of course, there were the promising tweets that told us Félix registered 92 mph with his fastball on the radar gun.

But here’s what’s most bothersome to me, a quote from an unnamed Mariners’ executive in Ryan Divish’s story in the Seattle Times on Sunday: “It looked like he hasn’t picked up a ball the entire offseason.”

If you give Félix the benefit of the doubt, maybe that’s not the case. But what if it is? In a prove-it season, one that is so vital to the rest of his career, Félix showed up less than ready to go. This wouldn’t be a shocking development to Servais, who does a great job of publicly supporting Félix while no doubt dancing away from what he’d really like to say.

We hear that Félix has been off with his mechanics in the early part of spring training, and Servais called him “rusty.” I’ll give him rusty, and I don’t know the first thing about pitching mechanics, but if you’ve pitched as long as Félix has, should that be an issue at this point in his career? Maybe so, but it seems like there’s always something with Félix these days.

Now we’re seeing Félix experimenting with pitching from the stretch even when the bases are empty. Maybe that will unlock some consistency, maybe not.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’d be more empathetic toward a fading star if he were doing everything the Mariners wanted him to do. But that hasn’t happened. I still feel like he thinks he’s the King, and he’s not. I wish the Mariners would end King’s Court because it’s counterproductive to be shouting for strikeouts when the team hopes he pitches to contact instead.

Perhaps having a new pitching coach and catcher will help. If not, how long will the Mariners put up with a subpar Félix? At what point do you cut your losses? In a knee-jerk reaction, I’d rather see Justus Sheffield in the rotation with Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc than Félix as the fifth starter. The plan is to have Sheffield start the season in Tacoma, but right now I say scrap that thought and get him to Seattle next month instead of next year if Félix continues to have a spotty spring.

Félix is at the crossroads in his career; everyone knows it and you have to hope against hope that he does too.

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